Cause No Suffering

Casa del Refugiado cots
Rows of donated cots at Casa del Refugiado

For nearly four hours I sat on a metal folding chair doing intake for the steady stream of people coming before me. I was at our newest hospitality site, Casa del Refugiado, and it’s a requirement at all our sites. Take down all the asylum seeker’s information from their ICE documents. But it can take a while when you’ve just received 150 families

I tried to write quickly, yet it seemed every time I looked up, more tired, worn, brown-skinned faces looked back at me, sitting in rows of white folding chairs, awaiting their turn. The children, who surely must have been hungry, were incredibly well-behaved.

Each time a parent and child came to my table, I smiled and introduced myself, trying to reassure them, especially the children, that this is a safe place. I was limited to brief encounters and kind smiles. Until a young woman, with a strong presence, sat down at my table. Her 24-year-old husband and 4-year-old son stood beside her. The boy had a shock of gray hair above his left ear, like a little man aging prematurely. Mixed in with his dark mane, it stood out, begging for me to ask a question. But I didn’t.

The expressionless mother answered my questions matter-of-factly, about birthdates, country of origin, which relative was sponsoring them in the U.S., until we got to the question about health. We’re required to ask is if they have any health issues, anything we need to know about. Turns out her little boy has vertigo. She explained that he takes medication, which the family had brought with them, but CBP had taken away.

“Why?” I asked.

She didn’t know.  “He just took it,” she said, and she flung her arm across the air, sweeping away the now invisible medicine, in imitation of the agent’s action.

I had heard of this happening from other volunteers – how some agents have taken both children’s and adult’s medication (including epileptics), for no given reason. Thrown it away. But this was the first time it had happened to someone I was interviewing.

I got curious. Had she been exposed to other maltreatment I’d heard about?

“When you were with el migra (their name for immigration agents) did you sleep on the ground or on a cot?”

Migrant families in US custody are sleeping on the ground under a bridge in El Paso
Asylum seekers held under the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, March 2019 (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

En la tierra,” she said. Her face visibly changed as she told me this. Her eyes softened. Her voice almost caught in her throat. “Hacίa frίo.” (It was cold.)

I paused and looked at her.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I reached out and touched her arm on the table before me. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Maybe it was my tender gesture. Maybe she felt safe enough to release her feelings, even if only just a little bit. But finally she let the tears come. As this now very vulnerable woman sat before me, I wanted to cry, too.

Not just for her, but for all the others like her. Those who’d had children’s sweaters taken away, baby blankets and extra layers of clothing removed. Those who’d slept on the ground, huddled with their children against their chests, with maybe a thin Mylar covering. Those who’d gone without basic necessities.

Like the mother who came to us with a baby who’d been in the same diaper for four days. A fellow volunteer told me about the child’s terrible rash.

They come to us hungry.  Some say they eat only once a day with el migra.

For months now I have been hearing about harsh circumstances some asylum seekers undergo once they turn themselves over to Border Patrol.

Some are held in cramped holding cells and sleep on the floor. Others are placed in makeshift tents and sleep on the ground. I understand that it can be difficult to accommodate the increasing numbers. Yet our churches and other nonprofits continue to step up to meet basic humanitarian needs. We provide cots and blankets. Three meals a day. Baby formula and diapers.

Casa del Refugiado Esperanza
A message of hope inside Casa del Refugiado

And, even if provisions are not possible, it is one thing to be unable to alleviate another person’s suffering. It is quite another to cause it.

What excuse is there for kicking someone sleeping on the ground? Screaming at frightened children? Knocking someone in the head because he is indigenous and doesn’t understand your instructions given in Spanish? Threatening a mother with words like “your children will die for abandoning your country” after her husband was murdered?

Yet, this is what some asylum seekers have reported. One man described his experience with el migra as “seven days in hell.”

Granted, not all Border agents are like this. Some are kind and compassionate. Some have even brought us donations.

But for those who harbor harsh anti-immigrant feelings or carry unprocessed anger and stress, it is much too easy to abuse those under your care. Without oversight of makeshift shelters, and with increasing public maligning of immigrants, I fear more, and worse, is happening.suffering servant

No matter where you stand on this issue, what happens to other human beings under our care matters.

 

And if I claim to follow Jesus, a suffering servant himself, I will do what I can to relieve suffering.

And more than that.

Because I have experienced the unconditional compassion and mercy of God and I am created in that image, if I do not offer the same to others, then I am a fraud.  I am no lover of God.

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie
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Love in a Mosque

islamic-center

Thursday I found myself praying in a mosque. For the first time. Hopefully, not my last.

Although a Christian woman, I chose to be here. To join my friend Rob, whom I am visiting in Raleigh, and his friend Steve – also Christians. Rob and Steve have been visiting this mosque every Thursday for months. An expression of solidarity.

It was Steve’s idea. As anti-Muslim rhetoric grew more vicious, and frightening, he felt the need to do something positive. So they come at 5:30. One of the five times daily that Muslims gather to pray.

They sit among Muslim men in folding chairs spread out on bright green prayer rugs. And they pray. Silently. Respectfully.

The people have noticed their presence. And welcomed them. It doesn’t matter that Rob and Steve clearly are not Muslim.

On this particular night, I take a seat in the back, where the women gather. A shawl draped over my head covers my shoulders and bare arms. As I sit, I become aware that this might be risky. Associating with Muslims these days can be dangerous. Innocent people have been killed. Simply for being near a mosque. Or appearing to be Muslim.

A smiling man walks over to hand me literature entitled “What Is Islam?” I leaf through the pages as the women wander in with their children.

I read things I did not know. For instance, Islam means to be at peace with God and His creatures. “Being at peace with His creatures implies living in peace within one’s self, with other people, and with the environment.”

I consider this statement – that one of the aims of Islam is “to emphasize the oneness of humanity as a whole and the Oneness of the Creator….”

Hmm. The Oneness of all. That’s the reason I am here.

I pray silently for that Oneness to be realized. For unity. For compassion. For peace.

I watch the women demonstrate their own prayer to this Oneness.

They stand, arms stretched out before them, palms raised in worship. They utter words I don’t understand. They kneel, bend forward, forehead to the floor.

An act of surrender. A humbling expression of devotion.

Present. Open. Surrendered.

That is what I see. That is what I experience. And I mirror it back to them.

I remain in contemplative silence for awhile. A passage from the gospel of John surfaces: “God is love. And he/she who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him/her.”

In this space, I recognize our connection to the One whose power surpasses all.

That connection is Love.

abide-in-love

I like to think that this choice that Steve and Rob have made, and I along with them on this Thursday night, delights God. That in choosing to be in love and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, we are co-creating a world of love, beauty, and truth. For more years than I can remember I have prayed to co-create such a world. Thanks to Rob and Steve, I am being shown how.

Gerald May once commented while sitting in a prayer circle on a winter retreat when the electricity went out, “Here in this darkened room we are saving the world.”

A bold statement? Maybe.

But on that Thursday night, in a brightly lit room, with green prayer mats, I, too, experienced that possibility. Abiding in love with one another, we are saving the world.

One sacred moment at a time.