True Freedom

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“There’s nothing I can do,” he tells me.

He’s told me this countless times before.

Always with the same calm, trusting composure. And I have come to accept the acceptance in his words, knowing that his deep faith guides him.

But tonight…tonight I feel the anger growing inside me.

Tonight I want to slam my fists on the table, pound the glass between us, yell at the guards or his deportation officer, or better yet, the anonymous person who wrote this dreadful form letter Mathias has just slipped under the thick glass that divides us.

The letter that states our government continues to work with his government to take him back, even though we both know that since he has no passport or other legal documents, it’s highly unlikely his country will ever accept him. They’ve already said they can’t take him.

The letter that states he must not interfere with the process (a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous).

And, finally, the worst part, the letter that states he must remain locked up until October. Three more months of not knowing. With no guarantee any decision will be made even after that time.

Mathias, the young man I visit in detention, lost his asylum case back in April. Not unusual in El Paso. Denial is happening at an even higher frequency here than elsewhere.

We know he is supposed to be deported. But he waits in this liminal space as the two countries go back and forth, indifferent to the life they are impacting.

Three more months in limbo. Or is it hell?

I know the food isn’t good. I know that whenever he is allowed outdoors – always accompanied by a guard – he must stay within the narrow areas outlined in white on the cement. He cannot venture outside these lines.

I know about the locked metal doors that seal behind you, the tall barbed-wire fences and the full barracks where the TV plays loudly throughout the day. The difficulty he has in trying to pray.

And yet, I tell him I wish I could trade places with him. Even as I say it, I know I am sincere.

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He is already so thin, he cannot afford to lose any more weight. I would gladly lose it for him. I would take on the monotony of his structured day, assigned to wear a navy jump suit, allowing others to make decisions for me. In such a situation, so completely out of my control, I would be forced to turn to God while perched on this ledge in liminal space, feeling like a confined criminal when I am anything but.

This is Mathias’s situation. And he no more deserves it than I do.

This young man who followed the law, coming to a U.S. port of entry to present his case for asylum. As international law allows.

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The thing is, I care about Mathias. I have come to know him as a man of integrity. I have watched him deal with the stress and uncertainty of his situation with courage and tremendous trust in God.

When he tells me, “There is nothing I can do,” I hear and see in his face his ability to accept “God’s will,” as he puts it. He trusts God to care for him.

 

Yet he tells me he longs for freedom. After all, he has been confined for more than a year already.

I think of this as I drive home and discover Interstate 10 is closed. Traffic crawls as it’s diverted off the highway. I feel so tired and frustrated, knowing this will double the time it normally takes to get back to Las Cruces. I swear aloud.

Then I think of Mathias. Locked in his barracks tonight. Sleeping soundly, ever since he has learned to accept his situation.

Stressed behind my steering wheel, cursing tonight’s road construction, I suddenly wonder, who is more free?

Sometimes I have trouble accepting life on life’s terms. Despite his age, Mathias is my teacher. He reminds me of the importance of returning to my Source. My true freedom. And did I mention he is Muslim?

“He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.”    Thomas Merton

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Love in a Mosque

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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.

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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.