Rejected Faith

Christianity needs to have more words for “faith.”  I want to write about the fact that this Borderlands trip was only the second time in my life where I felt a sense of the depth, and even more so the necessity, of a faith that God is somehow, in some way, present amidst the most despicable treatment of human beings.  The other time was the year I worked at a homeless shelter in Baltimore.

What I want to say is that the stories I heard and the conditions I saw in the Borderlands forbid me from discarding “Christianity” as solely a spineless institution bound to the self-interest and corruption of political and economic powers, which for the most part is the embarrassing reality of a man-made tradition that claims to represent the word of God but in fact gives legitimation to the interests and will of men.  One example: the Mexican-American bishop of Brownsville, Texas who has yet to prove solidarity with the poverty, suffering, and lack of opportunity of the mestizo people trapped in the Brownsville borderlands by strategically placed, militarized checkpoints.  Another example: in my own pursuit of becoming a “master of theology” I have and will inevitably continue to participate in a game of touting my knowledge of technical vocabulary and abstract theories, tempted by the prospect of “universal truth” that comes with the comfort of privilege, too busy in the library to consider the truths that are known on the streets of Harlem, in the shelters of Baltimore, in the colonias of Cameron County, TX.

Mary holding the brutalized body of Jesus in San Fernando Church, San Antonio; the paint has faded from Jesus’ knees from the constant touch of prayer

What I need to express is the overwhelming feeling that I could not shake as our group reflected together on the Stations of the Cross at the Basilica of San Juan.  It was the simultaneous realization that I am not spared from pain and suffering, I don’t have to deny my own experience of the metaphorical burden of the cross that is felt in different ways by us all.  The image of Jesus’s last moments—the pain of a mother watching her son suffer, the relief brought by a friend’s hands lightening the load of the cross, repeated depictions of falling and having to get back up, alone—these are relatable portraits of very human experiences to which everyone can connect their own stories.  But as I reflected at the station of Jesus falling for the third time, I could not shake the image of the mother of three daughters whose two hands were severed in a preventable maquiladora machinery accident.  How does she get back up?  Where does she find the strength to pick up her cross once more, with no physical option for continuing to support her children, when her “worker’s compensation” lasts only a few months, and then the rent and cost of food in the colonias will be too much to bear?  It was these sorts of questions that we eager seminarians asked the female leaders in that bedroom meeting in the colonias, that we asked the woman who had fled to the United States in a tire, in hopes of a better future for her son.  Where do you find your hope, when you are defined as cheap labor, when everyday you agonize over the future suffering of your children, when you are denied public lights by a state that is the fifteenth richest economy in the entire world?  The unwavering answer by every single individual we have talked to on this trip has been just one, whispered word: faith.  A faith so deep, so real, and so subversive, that all I can try to do is keep telling these stories of suffering, survival, and an unwavering faith in God that are not my own.  I can bear witness.  And I can continue to demand that the Church, that theologians, that any person claiming a Christian faith, speak, and more importantly act, out of the recognition of the Galilean principle of which Virgilio Elizondo reminds us: what human beings reject, God chooses as God’s very own.

The Crack of the Third Space

The Liberty Bell has been cracked since the birth of the United States

Next time you go to Philadelphia, make sure to stop by the Liberty Bell.  It’s been cracked since the birth of this nation.  It is the crack that symbolizes the fact that our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and then went home to their slave-owning homes.  It is the crack that haunts us in memory of the lynching tree, segregation and detention centers, and a racist and out of control prison-industrial complex that maintains white American privilege and power.  It is the crack that hires undocumented immigrants to build a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants.  It is the crack of the “third space,” along our nation’s arbitrary Mexican border that allows continued myths of American Exceptionalism to have no memory of the bloody war that stole this land in the first place.  It is the crack between checkpoints in which thousands of mothers and children await deported husbands in the colonias with very little means of securing employment, denied the dignity of driver’s license, furiously learning English and taking classes in continued pursuit of the “American Dream” of freedom that history shows to have been built on the backs of those living the American Nightmare.  It is the crack in our “pursuit of happiness” that leaves a single man running a homeless shelter for immigrants and refugees with the help of three cooks and two social workers, where the reality is that the mostly undocumented men from that shelter wait outside the fence to be picked up for construction, farm, or any other manual labor by employers who know of their desperation and more often than not never honor their promised payments.  If the men are fortunate enough to find work from the shelter, a woman with children at that shelter has no childcare, no transportation, and very little hope of pulling herself and her family out of that living environment which is supposed to be a temporary respite.  It is the women, children, and men that occupy this “third space” within a country that repeatedly prides itself on its founding notions of liberty that continue to fall through the cracks of our dominant national memory.  As is clearly symbolized for us in the building of a wall that does not fool anyone in its uselessness and yet intimidates in its armed patrol, the consequences for asserting oneself as a full human being with a right to dignity, respect, and opportunity in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands are deadly.

The despair of this situation can be overwhelming.  A retired minister named Joe, who’s organization, Pax Christi, has as its goals nothing short of ending the death penalty in Texas, disbanding nuclear armament, and obtaining world peace, quietly shared with us as we met in Methodist Church in Brownsville that despair was his biggest cross.  And yet, when I begin my own spiral into despair, I have to remember the faith that was so unquestionably expressed by the women workers of the maquiladoras who are organizing to learn and spread knowledge of the labor law and rights for the members of their community, for their fellow workers.  I have to remember that, after hearing about what a battle it has been to just get public lights for the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley region (still not accomplished), Martha, the seemingly fearless leader of the colonias’ community organizing union—LUPE—finds her motivation and inspiration to get up and go to work every day in the determination, resilience, and beauty of her Latino immigrant community.  There is a great potential in the people, she says.  And what does the liberty bell stand for, if not the realization of the potential of human beings to freely become who we might be?

A sign displayed by a woman whose property has been fenced between the Border Wall and the Rio Grande River

Preach the gospel, and sometimes use words.

As Aaron so beautifully described in his post (http://unionindialogue.org/blog/2012/01/09/a-key-to-social-justice/), yesterday’s experience hearing Rev. Feliberto Pereira’s story of faith and survival in the context of internment, horrifying abuse, and multiple threats to his life for professing his Christian faith was awe-inspiring.  Seeing how all of the experiences and stages of his life have culminated in and shaped his ministry today, most specifically in his founding of the http://www.swgsm.org/ which continues to run and expand through donations and the ever-present labor of volunteers, left me nearly speechless.  We had spent the day with a man who was once a refugee with nothing and so now dedicates his life to helping those refugees who enter the U.S. with nothing today.  It is that simple, and yet to witness the work of the Southwest Good Samaritans and Rev. Feliberto and to realize that this entire enterprise is grounded solidly in Christian faith almost makes you shudder.

And yet, the inspirational life and ministry of the Rev. Feliberto, his church, and his countless volunteers were not the entirety of yesterday’s exemplary examples of faith and spirit.  The worship service that our group attended at Rev. Feliberto’s church was a reminder to me that sometimes words—through song, and through preaching—really can capture, nurture, and spread the spirit that is needed to “keep on keeping on.”  I’ve never witnessed such a powerful sermon as we did yesterday in that small, plain looking church. But did you ever hear it, feel it, and see it in the sermon given by Dean Machado to that small congregation in Los Fresnos, TX.   It was a particularly interesting experience for me because, with the exception of a few intentionally placed English phrases (which allowed me to get the main point à orthopraxis > orthodoxy, God endows everyone with the ability to speak and act for truth, justice, and dignity in this world), it was entirely in Spanish and thus I did not understand a word of it.  However, as I watched her gesticulate and change expressions—one moment laughing and getting the crowd’s jovial reaction, the next somber and teary-eyed—I realized how secondary words are to passion, charisma, and boldness when conveying a message of faith, hope, and love.  The tangibility of hurt, despair, and yet the unbreakable bonds of community that came to life during Dean Machado’s sermon brought me to tears.  Looking back on the day, I think the theme of our van-ride reflections was the struggle to articulate exactly what it was about this single human being, Rev. Feliberto Pereira, that enabled him to care for so many, to make such a major, life-changing impact on his Texas borderland community.  We were wrestling with the quiet, often unnoticed radicalness of living out one’s vocation to its fullest and most impactful potential; with the sense that the seeds of truth and justice might be buried deep within every single individual, in whatever capacity and context in which one finds oneself.  These seeds of unbreakable spirit within each of us, despite what the world says about “who we are,” were, at least for me, brought to life through the power of a sermon.

“Who Are We?” Stories of Identity and Imagination in San Antonio

Yesterday, our group got its first glimpse at the lived reality of San Antonio—its beauty and ugliness, its limitless potential for new being wrapped up in the stale taste of racial, gendered, and socioeconomic injustice. Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, author of the foundational Mexican-American theological work, The Galilean Journey (1970), reminded us of the seemingly obvious, yet too easily forgotten, fact that theology is born out of and written for the pain, suffering, and joy of one’s community.  For Elizondo, who considers himself first and foremost a parish priest, his theological work comes out of his own questions of identity, lived as a part of the Mexican-American community of San Antonio.  The questions he has struggled with since childhood mirror the quest for identity he imagines of his Mexican-American community: “Who am I, who are we, if not fully accepted by my Mexican family and roots, yet not fully embraced by the United States?”  This question of identity led Elizondo to imagine a theology that continues to connect to the mestizaje (a new people born of two disparate parents) reality of his community, as well as those of his students and readers—an attestation to the power of imagination stemming from fundamental human questions.

Our group in front of the Alamo

Yet the question of identity does not always lead to life-giving, nourishing stories.  Our tour of the Alamo, and the narrative of battle, nobility, “success,” and “sacrifice” of the white Texan men enshrined in that symbolic stronghold of the “fight for freedom” along the American frontier that came along with it, was a harsh reminder that power, privilege, and domination imagine their own narratives of identity.  On the tour of the Alamo, a white North American such as myself is made to feel pride and honor for the sacrifices of these noble white frontiersmen, with little consideration for any other aspects –or people—of the story apart from the “fight for freedom” that the Alamo represents.   It was at the Alamo that I realized that the human quest for identity is inextricably linked with the creation of narratives that provide a way for us to imagine these identities.  But this imagination is never detached from the sociohistorical interests we seek to preserve.   Is imagination, conveyed through narratives, just as capable of reinforcing false notions of identity as it is capable of affirming human worth and dignity?