The Desired Change

In the early morning we gathered together, watched and listened to our stories.  A morning mist rose as the sun broke through the rising dew.  As we walked our bodies split the clouds.  Placed next to a Texas highway, we proceeded through the stations of the cross.  The Basilica de San Juan falls in a Texas plain land, that stretches out underneath highway and trucking routes.  As we moved, the city of San Juan slowly came to life.  We were largely silent and reflective; being the middle of the week, we had already gone through several busy days of conversations and presentations with local South Texas and Borderland organizations.  This was a time for us to place our context into a faith story.  From Pilate’s sentencing to Simon’s lifting of the cross, our voices re-collected and re-categorized our experiences of the past week.  Jesus’ passion might speak directly to individuals’ confrontation with power in their lives.  It might speak of the failures of humanity and the strength in gathering together our selves.  Picking up pieces we’ve dropped to the ground, overflowing from our arms, we are charged by this story to muster enough honesty to continue broken, imperfect and weak.  Our re-presentations of the stories you’ve read about – the maquiladora workers, the union organizers, the comite de apoyo, the small San Antonio Pastor, the refugee center – all of these memories place Jesus’ power against that of a force displaced through bureaucracy and lines of authority.  And as we reached the tomb, as we reached the final procession, Dr. Machado brought us together, asking us simply, “What have we learned?  What do you do about it?”

I have found my theology challenged in this borderland.  We met recently with Mike Seifert, the lead organizer of Equal Voices, a non-profit organization coordinating ten different non-profit social justice and community development organizations.  Mr. Seifert, in the time we spent with him, made it clear that he was infuriated with the passivity of the church in South Texas.  He and the other leaders he works with across the borderlands, have confronted churches on many occasions, finding little commitment; acquiescence to a disinterested religious life of social concerns seems to have taken hold.  I can sympathize.  It seems this statement accurately characterizes my home church in Kansas.  Now, I do not want to make statements concerning church participation or church activity within the United States.  To reconcile Mr. Seifert’s anger, it would be useful to focus on the social empirical reality of our country.  You have seen, in this blog, our reflections on real life stories.  You have read real life suffering, and real life pain.  Were these stories new? Are you surprised these conditions exist in and are caused by the United States of America?

The stories we have come across are not unique, however, in their experience of poverty.  To use common and inadequate stereotypes, one might find the “third world,” in the “first world” of New York City.  Children all throughout this country suffer from hunger:  1 in 4 children in the United States is at risk of hunger.

But how many communities have you witnessed as trapped?  How often do you hear of youth committing suicide because of stunted dreams?  The Latino community in the Borderlands is a community assaulted from all sides.  Every day operations, such as going to the store, or going to school, or going to work are activities that are ridden with crushing anxiety. So what can I do?

I asked Kellyann Conners and Stephen Tickner this question last night.  Late, we had a night free where we might decompress a bit.  As we played cards, our game slowed and the conversation deepened.  Loud sighs filled the air.  Oftentimes we become overwhelmed with the impressiveness of these problems.  How do several seminary students speak a theological, just, social truth to debilitating maquila power?

In everyday actions:  from the products we buy to the way we talk about immigration issues and the truth of NAFTA’s economic repercussions. We have come to understand that all of us are caught in violent struggle.  I don’t assume we end consumerism, I ask we merely begin to think about how we are operating in the world.  Yet is that enough? For many of us seminarians, we will make large decisions in the upcoming years as to our life direction. I don’t assume everyone will have the same passion for the Texas borderlands as I do.  After organizing with an IAF organization in San Antonio last year, this trip sits well in  furthering my life education on this space and place.  Yet, as Dr. Machado put so well in a reflection earlier in the week, our communities cannot respond to things that they don’t know about. Undeniably, those who have seen and heard of this space (certainly unique if not in its poverty, then in its militarization) carry with them charge to continue telling this story.  Again, as we reflected on this responsibility during the same reflection, it became obvious of our return: our ability to leave this space.  Questions of how we use our citizenship become extremely important:  how we vote, how we engage in our community, and what sort of institutions we create. Start conversations with family members on what poverty looks like in your community.  Educate yourself concerning the cracks in this nation that speak of disturbing truths.  Only when we know this land can be begin to change this land.  For certainly, as has been said, the churches we create are emblematic of the communities we desire.

I don’t claim to be any farther along this path than you all; I claim to begin this muddling through, this difficult yet important process of being a witness to all of the realities that exist in our country. These are tangible small steps that begin to suggest the undeniable structural and ideological change that needs to occur to bring justice to all of our communities.

Cynical Joe

Theology needs to be recast if it is to be truly powerful again today for all of us.

In the middle of a Methodist church hall in Brownsville, Tx the ten of us from Union Theological Seminary conversed with activists as they recounted stories and their opinions on various issues.  Joe, a catholic priest who left his parish twenty years ago spoke with cynicism and authority while touting messianic arrogance.  Yet in his eyes there was the pain of his despair of being unable to change things in his world that he deemed wrong. Joe pounded his fingers on the table as he channeled Gandhi, “Christianity has yet to be truly lived.”  His disparaging claims of the church as an institution unable to uphold its claims and as largely hypocritical sounded off the Methodist walls.  I asked him why work through the church, why not simply work through another social service organization that might leave all the hypocrisy behind?  He told me I was preaching to the choir.  Now, I have tried to process what he meant by that final phrase, and still I am left chewing my cheeks in confusion.

After a morning with La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a local Union started by the United Farm Workers in San Juan, Texas, we had traveled to Brownsville to meet with Joe and the others.  LUPE’s real work occurs as they work in development of people.  They work heavily in the colonias in Texas on infrastructure issues, flooding, school bus access to the colonias, and other simple, basic right issues quickly denied to the colonias. It was in the drive, however, from San Juan to Brownsville that I was able to place all of this current work in its historical background.  I remember reading about the history of this land as stolen from Mexico through loop holes found in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; about how frontiersmen came to San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville; I remember how this dirt was looked upon with lustful westward eyes where bodies and people – Mexican and Native American bodies and peoples – were tossed and pushed aside.

But now, all that reading fades away in light of stories from Cristina and Maria, of Ed and Joe, of Rev. Fereira.  New histories are being written constantly.  The invisible are being made visible daily.  The poor are being liberated from chains of oppression telling them they can’t advocate for themselves; these chains tell these women they cannot advocate for themselves, that they are not smart enough to confront their supervisors about why they’re getting fired.  New histories are being written every day as LUPE workers are advocating and fighting for those families in the colonias for better lighting and drainage, for different bus routes that actually go into their neighborhoods.  Even Joe, oh cynical Joe, even he writes new histories as he works hand in glove with lawyers for undocumented friends and speaks with those who often are not given the voice necessary to use their voice in vote, occupation or education.

But why are we not hearing this?  Why do maquila workers continue to have their arms cut off, and why do their children continue to live in fear of their own backyard as violent strangers pass by their homes at night?

There is no magic answer.  It seems this is the reality in which we live.  This pain is real and cannot be solved in the next year, I doubt, or the next two.  In old western movies, to draw from the manifest history-books, the hero is often seen defeating the bad guys while standing on two horses at once:  when he over-takes their carriage or makes a get away from their hideout.  To our own peril, we have tried to ride the horse of human progress and exceptionality for too long in our history.  The Mexico-US border might be one fine example of the violence this horse trick causes.  One foot firmly in beliefs of progress and profit, and of new Edens.  While the other foot planted on a horse whose insignia reeks of chemical solvents leeched from the maquila plants potentially causing cancer in thousands of women workers with no other options.  No longer can I proclaim a theology that upholds this hypocritical get away:  its violence is found boiling up in every city of our nation.

Joe looked me in the eyes as he told me I was preaching to the choir and I knew we weren’t signing the same tune.  For as our nation continues to ride toward sunset with a foot on the horse of progress and another on American Exceptionalism, I know, soon, we must all wake up from our Hollywood Western dreams.  Our Empire is violent:  I heard it yesterday as one women recounted to me a baby’s finger had been chewed off by rats in the colonias.  Our Empire is violent:  I heard it today as colonias in Texas fill with sewage water every time it rains and children can not leave their homes for school.

But our churches are good, or at least can be.  As house meetings occur weekly through LUPE’s work where women speak about their dreams becoming a reality.  Where new lights bring clarity to a dangerous night darkness.  Our faith gives us power to write new histories as Ed Krueger speaks of 32 years of organizing with Mexican women and their powerful stories of confronting such an absurd reality.  Our faith tells us to continue writing new histories, histories that continue to always speak raw truth to absurd power.

(some names are changed )

A Key to Social Justice?

From what I can tell, Rev. Feliberto Pereira perfectly combines political savvy, theological passion and faith. A Cuban refugee, who left in the 1960s, Rev. Pereira shared the dangers of a Cuba under Castro for a Christian: concentration camps, horrendous conditions and constant death threats. He had to leave, and as he tells this story now, many years later, his smile covers the callous violence found within. Since he has been in Los Fresnos, Texas, and with Iglesia Cristiana Ebenezer, Rev. Pereira has dedicated his life to helping, serving and working with the poor, the refugee, and those with whom his story resonates. He started Southwest Good Samaritan Center in 1985, and has created a five acre refugee center full with dorm rooms, workshops, kitchens and classrooms; all of this done on donations and faith. As our day turned to an end, our van filled with conversations reflecting on Rev. Periera’s ability to work with local political leaders, in his ability to minister to his community with charisma and support, and his seeming unbridled faith in god to accomplish his mission. One of us asked, “Is that it, then?” Is this what needs to be done to offer solutions to systemic injustices and nurture ailing hearts in this hurting world?

Rev. Pereira’s church is a strong force in local politics. Rev. Pereira was recently elected as the president of the chamber of commerce. He boasts that each member of his congregation brings with it ten more votes. In the borderland town of Los Fresnos, Rev. Pereira has drastically improved his community and that of the Iglesia Cristiana Ebenezer. Southwest Good Samaritan Center has run on donations since its inception. Its success, its reach into the community is impressive as a place of solace for those refugees seeking asylum and those in between the difficulties of our broken immigration system. Rev. Pereira has a firm grasp on the connection between his identity as a Cuban refugee and his political being. In his congregation that hurts from immigration difficulties, job losses, and the violent reality that is the geography, topography and history of the borderlands, Rev. Pereira offers a simple yet undeniably powerful and change-creating way of life. His is a life certainly worth mediating.

As we drove away from Rev. Pereira, quips, tropes, and reflections hung in the air. “Is that it? Is that what I have to do?” It struck me then, that Rev. Pereira might never have found himself in such a situation: where he questioned how he might make the most difference in the world. I do not think that he might have ever looked for a recipe for success in social justice. It occurred to me that, throughout all of my images of Rev. Pereira, I hear a voice speaking of his love for his work. It seems that as a young, ambitious, male, Union student, I am often caught in the academic search for the “right answer” for social justice: A magic key – per say – that would lead to greatness, where I might solve justice issues while ministering to a broken and hurting faith community. What Rev. Pereira, however, seems to be modeling is a passion for a work that resonates most deeply with our stories, with the things we find ourselves continuously coming back to. In this in between place, in the ambiguity of the borderlands where Fr. Virgilio Elizondo offers a better mestizo future, I find myself listening for the voice of the community. I find myself agreeing with the woman in the Presbyterian church, again, that our churches ought to be places that give deeper freedoms, and stronger voices. This is a church I can be a part of.  It is a church that acknowledges, rebukes and professes new alternatives to the ugliness of a fence dividing families, of a maquiladora system employing over 200, 000 women in unsafe conditions and a geography ridden with violence and all the ideologies and ways of life that go along with that political statement.

Where we’re going

So to give you a rough outline of our trip, take a look at the map.  Through the 5th of January to the 14th, we’ll be traveling by van through the south of Texas, taking note of topography, geography and the communities that inhabit them.  We’ll let you know, in our blogs, where we are day by day.

Be looking for more stories and posts soon!

The Galilean Journey Today- Meeting with Fr. Virgilio Elizondo

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo opened our day proclaiming that theology “is a critical faith reflection done by the people. Faith is not an abstraction.” It involves questions about a community of individuals concerning truth, goodness, and beauty; alternatively, it also approaches those items that are debilitating a community. In the first full day of our immersion, our conversation with Fr. Elizondo set the stage – for me – of the trip: There is much power in a theology that can be created by listening to our lives, our neighbors and to the histories out of which we create our identities. It becomes extremely important to me, then, that theology is a practice done in relation with others, based in stories and utilizes a discourse lending dignity to individuals’ lives.

A story that I want to lift up, highlighting the importance of Fr. Elizondo’s words, occurred during a discussion we had with a local pastor and two leaders in a small San Antonio congregation. In the Westside of San Antonio, a heavily marginalized and oppressed Hispanic neighborhood, we discussed how a church reaches out to its community’s needs. The two leaders shared stories from their lives, touching on job loses and student debt; immigration issues and local drug and gang problems. Yet, the women and the pastor shared a faith that paired their political, social, cultural, identities with a theological commitment to justice. Fr. Elizondo’s words rung true throughout the day: Theology is done when listening to stories like those shared by the pastor and those women; theology is a practice, a confrontation with history’s identity making materials and emptying them of the violence that segregates and marginalizes communities. One of the women shared how her life has been transformed through participating in the church. After immigrating to the states in 1996, and after learning English, she joined the church, and saw the importance of advocating for other women who were in similar situations as her own. Without a community of faith bolstering and supporting her– as she is in her own identity – she would not have developed her leadership roles in the community. This faith is gained through confronting authorities like city council and the mayor, where she feels authorized by the church to speak out concerning immigration issues impacting her and her neighbors.