Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dying in the Promise Land

Reflections on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley

Some people think that every word of God is contained in the holy scriptures, and that all that is necessary for salvation is there. But some people think that the Gospel is on-going, that God is still speaking. and that is what I think.

In this past week I have heard the Gospel is an unlikely place, it seems to me, in the sweltering inferno of Arizona.

For three days we sweated it out at the very first official meeting of the Coalition of Episcopal Latinos. I heard God’s familiar call to justice and compassion from many passionate, committed and brilliant individuals. I heard many beautiful dreams and visions, as well as some on-going nightmares.

Early in the conference we were shown a list of the people who had died in the desert each year for the past ten years while trying to cross the Mexican border. In 2001 there were 77 deaths. In 2004 there were 219 deaths. In 2007 there were 250 deaths. And so far this year there have been 186 deaths, that is counting only up to August 18. Then we were given innocent-looking pieces of paper that were in fact, small stealth bombs set to explode our complacency.

On these pieces of paper were the names and vital statistics of those who had died, and ten of us were asked to say a spontaneous prayer each of these people.

There was Maria Julietta Lorenzo-Garcia. age 23. home town, Tulancingo, Hidalgo, Mexico. She was found on July 9, 2010, in the desert county of Pima. The cause of death was hypothermia. This young woman died alone of the cold, out in the unsheltered wilderness. God only knows what conditions she fled to take such a risk. There was Fidel Vargas Parra, age 17, hometown unknown. Cause of death: Hypothermia. He died alone of the cold near Pisinemo Village, and was found on July 11, 2010 also in the county of Pima.

Then there were the many who were found who were never identified, but we prayed for each of them as well. There was someone, an unidentified male, age unknown, hometown unknown, cause of death unknown, who was found on July, 11, 2010 , on a lonely stretch of North Mesquite Oasis Road in the desert county of Pima. There was another body found, and not only the name and all other circumstances were unknown, but even the sex was undetermined, which made me wonder how long the body had been out there, or what had been done to this person. The body was found on a wild, remote part of the desert, there was no road or town anywhere near where this person was found, only the longitude and latitude were listed, and the fact that he or she was found on July 12, 2010 in Pima County. All of these people had actually made it across the border, but the area was so brutal, so unsheltered and freezing at night, that they died even as their dream was realized.

The prayers for these seekers were beautiful heartfelt and tearful. One intercessor said that although we did not know the name or the face of the person he was praying for, that God knew his face and god knew his name, and for God he was not unidentified.

The words of Jeremiah come to me when I hear these stories:

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health
of my poor people not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

But even with the consciousness of all these recent tragedies, there was so much hope and strength and beauty present as well in that amazing gathering.

We were in Arizona, and so of course the brutal law that has been passed there, SB 1070 up was on everyone's hearts and minds. This law was put into effect on April 23 of this year. It allows police officers to stop and interrogate residents of the state of Arizona for no reason other than the fact that they appear to be Latino, and might possibly be illegal. The language of the law is so open to interpretation that abuses are very common. Among many other things, the bill also forbids churches from providing sanctuary, and makes illegal the soliciting of work, or the hiring of day laborers.

A woman came to the conference to speak to us, and she brought her whole family, her mother, her husband, her father, her brother, her baby and 4 year old daughter. she told the story of how they all held vigil for 103 days, even the baby. This was to bear witness to those many individuals and families who would be harmed by this brutal bill, and to pray together that the law would be reversed.

On April 15 SB 1070 was passed by te Arizona house, and on the same day a series of raids took place in Phoenix, Tucson, Rio Rico and Nogales, and in the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora. The raids targeted people traveling on shuttle services, but whole neighborhoods were affected, with traffic brought to a virtual standstill while agents occupied the cities in their biggest operation in the seven-year history of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Scores of people were arrested and fifty vehicles were confiscated. The effects of the law were immediate and devastating to the community. School children were afraid to leave the house to go to school, And their parents were afraid to go to work. Adults going to school were afraid to go to their classes. And of course families were devastated by the loss of their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. Seeing all this, the woman who came to speak was moved to volunteer with Promise Arizona, and organization created to fight SB 1070. These are her words:

When that bill was made law my whole world collapsed. Because I knew we were going to be persecuted I was afraid when I saw a cop and I would change my route and run away. Many people lived with that fear by the time I heard of the vigil which was at the state capital.

I decided to join Promisa Arizona as a volunteer. I knew no one in the organization, but I approached the group to hear what they were doing and I heard about the vigil. I said are you going to stay here and sleep? They said yes, so I brought from home my own blankets and one day when the press was going to come we told the people we would vigil for 90 days. During that time there was joy, crying, fighting and many said to us, how can you endure so long? But for me the endurance came from seeing the people when they came, and I said to them, have faith, pray with us do not go away. We saw the sad faces of the children saying I do not want to go away- 15 and 16yr old kids, they have been here all their all their lives they lived here and they had to go back. That gave us strength to keep on. Day after day people brought us food- every day a different group would come. And this baby was there all the time- 6 months when we started- there were many babies there but this baby we called the baby of the vigil.

The other thing gave us strength was other people came from other states to support us and I thought if they leave everything to support us how can we not support our selves? The promise we made continues. we said we would be there for 90 days we were there for 103 days and we are still holding vigil, we continue to work. We learned that it doesn't matter if we are immigrants or not we have rights. For those who are already established here is very easy to forget those who are left behind, but this vigil helped change minds. People came and said vulgar things to us sometimes. We were depressed and said how can we go on? But others would support us and give us the strength to go on. What is important is not for us but for the next generation so that they will suffer from the color of their skin. I didn’t know if I would survive for 103 days, but I did survive, because God provided. And what I learned was that God gives you what you need.

We are, many of us, Americans, and I hope, proud to be American. We grew up listening to the legend on the base of the statue of liberty, give me your tired your poor. I pray that this legend does not become a myth. And for our congregation, we have a special place in this on-going struggle. Jesus has answered the question he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” We have many neighbors we see each time we come to this church, who have made this neighborhood a much safer place, with their eyes on the street, with their constant presence. These are our Guatemalan day laborer brothers who have endured twice the hardships of a brutal border crossing- from Guatemala into Mexico, and then from Mexico into this country. And here in the promised land they were attacked by a driver who threw a home-made bomb at them right in front of our church earlier this year. They were attacked because they were standing and waiting for work, while wearing brown skin. They are our neighbors indeed. Talk to them. Come on Fridays and feast with them at our day laborer lunches. And listen to their stories.

Perhaps it is true that we cannot serve God and wealth at the same time. We cannot worship our lifestyle, our comfort and our security, and let injustice continue. The borders rights activists in Arizona were quoted as saying that “Tuscon today is the moral equivalent of Birmingham Alabama in 1961.” The civil rights abuses that are happening down in Arizona as we speak are very much very like those of the Jim Crow south of the sixties. Families are being torn apart, and lives are being destroyed.

God spoke to me this week in Arizona. God spoke to me through the name of Maria Julietta Lorenzo-Garcia, in the God spoke to me in the name of Fidel Vargas Parra, in the name of Omar Velazquez Luna, and in all the no-names of names of the unidentified who died in the wilderness, who died in the promised land. God spoke to me through the incredible courage of Petra Falcon of Promisa America and all the families who held vigil, often on their knees, for 103 days. They are still holding vigil.

God is speaking, and if you hear the question, “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” you can find the answer to that question in the bible.