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.
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.
By Elizabeth Bukey:
Dr. Machado, who organized our pilgrimage to the border, is fond of telling students how important maps are. They can help us understand why wars were fought, the value of certain locations, and, often, tell us something about the mapmaker’s worldview. Certainly the map I found on a postcard in San Antonio speaks volumes about how Texans see the world, and the borderlands in particular:
As you can see, Texas has swallowed up most of the United States and Northern Mexico, with the other continental states relegated to insignificance. (Alaska and Hawaii don’t appear; Puerto Rico and the other territories have certainly not been considered at all.) This self-centered worldview is not really that unusual in the U.S.: New Yorkers certainly are guilty of thinking the world revolves around us.
I was more struck by the way the borderlands are completely missing. Brownsville is, after all, a fairly large city, but it’s cut off. South Texas has been erased. The countries with the highest poverty rates in the Texas are gone. The “no-man’s land” between the Mexican border and the internal Border Patrol checkpoints has been left off this map, just as it has stayed hidden from most of the people in this country. The borderlands, it seems, do not exist in the “Texan’s Map of the United States,” just as they do not exist in the “American” imagination.
When our group visited a curandera this week, I was told I had problems with my eyes. I don’t know about my physical eyesight, but I certainly have realized how blind I have been to the reality of the border. I hope that your eyes—like mine—are starting to open.
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.
I feel called to work on the role of faith communities in social movements to end poverty, led by the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr said, as he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign:
“The dispossessed of this nation…live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize…against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” (MLK, Jr, 1967)
I have burning in my bones just a little taste of the rage that must burn in the undocumented youth and their families, and indeed the whole Latin@ community. Immigrants and Latin@s are the object of so many injustices and downright hate. Consider the youth. Half of the population in this S. Texas county are under 23. Immigrants and Latin@s are, on average young, young people with vigor that can be developed as leaders that bring about change. Immigrants have as core values buying land, building houses, and staying, committed to creating a better life for their families. US Hispanics are hard-working, in fact, the hardest-working people group at this time in our country—look around at who’s carrying, cleaning, picking, and sweating these days. Numbers of Latin@s in the US are increasing rapidly, becoming majorities in many areas. And they are culturally a communal people, valuing strong communities, families, and relationships. I recognize potential in all these factors for a base for a “new and unsettling force”, a social movement that can lead change for the most poor in society, if the silent rage, youth, hard-work, relationality, and growing numbers can be made purposeful and leadership developed.
“My daughter graduated from college last year, an excellent student, but now she can’t get a job in her degree because she is undocumented. She’s lived here for 21 of her 23 years of life, worked hard in school. But now, there’s no hope without the DREAM Act.”
“He’s a good boy, a good student. But without his immigration papers, he can’t get a professional license.”
Two mothers described to our groups the ceilings forced upon their young adult children, who have lived their whole lives in the US but are undocumented. We’ve heard many stories this week of people being trapped: Three families living on a bone-dry, polluted half-acre that cost them $37,000. One woman telling how she came to the US inside a tire. Trapped. Suffocating.
If you’re undocumented in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, you’re literally trapped. There’s no “spreading your wings and flying” if you are young, and no American dream. Because the DREAM Act has not passed, undocumented students graduating from college cannot be hired. The DREAM Act would grant legal status after 6 years to graduates of US high schoosl who complete a college degree or military service. Undocumented immigrants can’t attain professional licenses. One literally can’t leave the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas because the Mexico border is to the south and 70 miles north, there is an unavoidable police checkpoint, where documents are checked and the undocumented arrested. Most don’t even drive a car because if pulled over, they will be arrested and deported.
Trapped, Sweltering, suffocating. Where is hope? On November 25, 2011, the day after Thanksgiving, 18-year-old Joaquin Luna committed suicide. Joaquin had lived in Hidalgo County, TX since he was 6 months old but was undocumented, and he killed himself in despair because he could not complete his dream of going to college and becoming an engineer.
On our Borderlands trip, we are no longer in Mexico. The conditions described above are specifically US. And the cognitive dissonance it is creating for me is horrible.
by Elizabeth Bukey:
Yesterday afternoon we met two women who both work on healing in the Brownsville community: one a curandera and the other a medical doctor. An outsider, particularly an Anglo Seattleite outsider like me, might think that Maria and Marsha would be very different: a faith healer and an MD, a trance medium and a pediatrician. Instead, I was struck by the similar themes in our two visits.
Both women have a deep love for the community in which they work: the poor, Mexican-American, often undocumented population in this borderland. Both women connect spirit and health: Maria, deeply rooted in Catholic religion, is a medium for the spirit of a 19th-century healer; Marsha brings her background in theology to her work as a doctor. Both are affected by interacting with the illness affecting this community: Maria is exhausted after working and has to expel the bad energy she has received; Marsha spoke several times of the deep rage she feels over the injustice of the border, and needing an outlet for this rage “besides four-letter words.”
Most strikingly, though, was the way both women address the fear of the people here. People often come to Maria and other curanderas to heal illnesses which to me sound like symptoms of a community under enormous stress: overwhelming fright, panic, nervousness, upset stomachs, and many others. Marsha told us of the high level of fear affecting this community, affecting people who are effectively trapped here between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of it. Wouldn’t you get sick if you were afraid to drive, afraid of being separated from your family, afraid of losing your job, afraid your children will have no future?
This morning the Borderlands group walked the stations of the cross on the lawn of the Basilica Cathedral de San Juan del Valle. Each of us chose a different station to reflect upon and incorporate how that station relates to our experiences so far on this trip. We were then assigned to give a short meditation to the group relating this. The station I chose was titled, “Jesus was Crucified.”
In preparation for this reflection, I was shown a scriptural stations of the cross. This was a resource which coordinated particular Bible verses with each station. After meditating on the verse assigned, I decided to re-translate the verse in a way that fits my experience so far. So, below is Luke 23:33-34, a Borderlands translation.
When the soldiers of evil came to the place called “maquilladora park” they nailed the women to the cross. Transnational corporations were the nails in their feet, keeping them from running toward what God created them to be. Western consumption put nails in their hands to keep them from working for any other purpose then their own happiness. Gang, drug, and gender violence put the final spear in their side to more rapidly bring about their death.
The evil ones also nailed two criminals to crosses, one on each side of the women.
But in the midst of all this, these brave and strong women say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
While the world watches these women suffer the pain of crucifixion, the evil ones take one last moment of advantage and use what’s left of these women to find a last mode of profit off of them by taking their last possessions and gambling them away.
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?
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 )
In the workers’ words:
- Elimination of shifts
- Solvent contamination
- Unjustified firings
- Refusal to hire women who are pregnant
- Screaming and other examples of domination
- Other errors in pay
- Lack of democracy in the union
- Insufficient training of workers
- Lack of unity/solidarity between male and female workers
- Companies don’t pay profit-sharing
- Lack of lawyers who seek justice
- Accidents aren’t reported
- Chairs have been taken away
- No time is given to feed babies
- Too much pressure to increase production
- And many, many other abuses not listed here. There were three more posters like this one.