On Thursday I ventured over the Bridge of the Americas into Juarez. Not quite like over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.
Not at all.
I was on a mission. And I didn’t have a song in my heart or a pumpkin pie in my lap. I simply carried the two things I knew I would need: my passport and my willingness.
It turned out to be more than enough.
We rode in a nondescript white van – myself and two fellow female volunteers. Our driver, a 29-year-old Peace Lutheran volunteer and grad student, had crammed boxes filled with satchels of toiletries and packages of new underwear for adults and children into the back. Insulated bags of warm burritos sat on the floor behind me.
Our destination – no shelter of warmth, but pop-up campsites just over the border where dozens of families had erected tents while they await their “turn” to cross the bridge and request asylum.
These “campers” were mostly Mexican nationals fleeing violence in their home states. Places like Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Guerrero, where cartels seemed to be especially powerful. Places where they’d left behind family homes. Maybe a small farm or herd of animals. Maybe not much of anything. Except their fears about keeping themselves and their children safe.
But Customs and Border Protection agents stop them before they can cross one of the international bridges. They’re told CBP can’t handle them. They’ll have to put their names on a list and wait until their number is called. A process called “metering.”
Over the months since this practice has been put into place, asylum-seeking families, afraid to lose their place in line, have pitched tents close to the bridges. And they wait.
In the meantime, church groups from El Paso all the way to Las Cruces have been bringing food over almost daily. Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians…they come to feed the people stranded here.
This was to be my first experience witnessing these campsites.
I didn’t know what to expect.
So my prayer before starting out that morning had been that I would have eyes to “see.” That I would be open to whatever I would encounter at the tent “city” where we were to deliver these donations.
The camp is easy to spot. A nest of tents encircling a small park. Wet clothing hanging from atop fences and trees.
As soon as we park and unload, people start lining up. They are used to this routine.
But, once they see the goodies I have in these boxes, it doesn’t take long before any semblance of a line dissolves. Eager children surround me.
I finally stop trying to tell the children to get in line. I let go of my desire to make it more orderly, each one waiting his or her turn. I simply give everything away until the boxes are empty.
Afterwards, while another volunteer pours extra water into people’s empty containers, I speak with a couple of the women. How long have you been waiting to be called, I want to know? Two months, they both say.
Two months! Just to cross over and be processed!
I want to ask if they’re aware they will have to come back here and wait again. Unless they are lucky enough to be released to their family sponsors.
I want to ask if they know how slim their chances are.
Maybe they do. Maybe they know that, especially for Mexicans, the chances of winning asylum are remote.
But maybe they have no place else to go. Maybe they figure even a glimmer of hope is worth holding onto while they sleep on the ground.
As I listen, I realize that I have never known such desperation. I cannot identify with these women living in little tents covered with plastic garbage bags in a crowded and dangerous city. I have nothing to compare it to. I feel so disconnected.
Later, reflecting on this experience, I remember my intention. My willingness to see.
So, I look up the definition of “connection.”
The relationship among people and objects across the barrier of space.
And then I remember something. Words that come in so clearly in the middle of my meditation:
“Have you been with me this long and still do not see me? Not know me?”
Humbled by how blind I am, I say again, “I want to see.”
It had seemed like such a small action. This crossing the bridge to hand out food and new underwear.
But it wasn’t. Not for them. And certainly not for me.
Because taking this small step has shown me. Your love is the bridge. Your love is the connection to recovering my sight.
And I know the way by heart.