Huge thanks for following along these weeks of blogging! Your support and kindness has astounded me. The following is adapted from what I spoke yesterday at our vigil at the Mesa Verde ICE Center in Bakersfield, CA.
Almost exactly one year ago, my dear friend Jo and I were stuck inside an immigration detention center in Mexico City. We had been living at a Catholic Worker house in rural Jalisco, and naively left the house without our passports. While on one of our midnight bus rides, a routine search by Mexican immigration officials led to our detainment.
I remember drawn-out hours waiting: in a barred-windowed van, in the jail yard watching rain fall over barbed-wire fences, in clockless hallways papered with posters declaring our supposed international rights (several of which we were kept from exercising). We are bilingual and had supports both within Mexico and from the US and it still took days to get out.I felt like a child, helpless at the whim of whatever action the gun-totting surrounding guards decided to take.
Though last years experience provides a baseline of empathy for today’s migrants fleeing to the US, I cannot help but notice the differences in our realities: despite the discomfort of sleeping under the night-long buzz of fluorescent lights, going to the bathroom and cold-showering with no doors while others slept in the same room, I know we fared far better with our minimal hygiene and sleeping arrangements than those caged in the US. While Jo and I were detained for an embarrassing lack of foresight while travelling, the women and children detained around us (and those imprisoned today) shared grueling accounts of fleeing their violent homelands and enduring years of separation from their children.
Fast-forwarding to this year, my walking over the past 2 weeks has brought me even more empathy for migrants. Even with topographic maps of trails and possible water sources, I still did not know if I would come through some desert sections with enough water; my heart aches for those whose journey to the US without such logistical information seems safer than staying in their homelands. When I found myself without a water source, exhausted and frightened at losing my way in the wilderness, I had the safety net of being able to trust strangers I eventually flagged down for help, not having to fear how they might treat me and relying fully on their generosity for my survival. When I decided to stop the walk to maintain my well-being, I could call family to pick me up, all the while holding in heart the family members unable to contact one another after separation at our border.
Our time in the Mexican immigration detainment was a privilege more than anything else, allowing us the opportunity to experience oneness with women and children seeking refuge and asylum. Beyond the fears and unknowns we faced while inside, Jo and I remark that we remember most the kindness and humanity shared while detained: We huddled around a Bible someone got hold of, praying our favorite psalms while sitting on the floor of the washroom. I giggled with a small horde of barefoot children while Jo entertained us by leading us in yoga one morning. We women cried and comforted one another when a volunteer church group visited to lead us in song and Scripture. We swarmed to hug and multiply one another’s joy each time a detainee’s name was called for release.
I share these stories because for all the news stories threatening to depress us, there lies an abundance more of unreported instances where heaven touches earth, where kindness prevails, where people remain human.
Yes, we are the feet and hands, and mouths of God in our small spheres of influence, and yet we can trust that God’s Spirit is present where we are not, caring in unseen ways for the toddler behind bars at the border and the terrified travelling mother whose eyes scan desert horizons.
While on the trail last week, I met a northbound hiker who told me of his recent experience hiking the almost unbearably-hot trail near Tehachapi. “I was so dehydrated, and down to my last bit of water. My thinking became confused and I stumbled as I walked. I was so scared, not knowing what I would do or if I would survive,” he explained. “Just then, I kid you not, I turned the corner and there was a gallon of water underneath a bush in front of me”. As we reflected on his life-sustaining experience, I wondered how many similar stories of miracles occurring for migrants go unheard.
Unexpected connections of compassion spring up for the man parched in the desert, for the kids singing nursery rhymes under barbed wire, and for the women who stay together in holding cells just so no one has to be alone.
We trust that God works through us to show mercy where we do have agency, as all of you have in following and participating in this blog. And we go on encouraging those around us to take action as well, so that even when we cannot e the ones placing each gallon of water in the desert or holding vigil at each ICE center, maybe our neighbor can.